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Art Histories: Julian Opie

In the first of our Art Histories features, Julian Opie traces his trajectory from early childhood to iconic British artist

Over the course of the last 25 years the British artist Julian Opie has communicated a unique vision of humanity, largely via appropriation of the various representations which help us all to traverse the modern world – those ubiquitous faceless matchstick figures that adorn everything from lavatory doors to emergency exits. It’s a precise and graphic artistic language of reduction that has often led to him being misunderstood as an artist primarily interested in communicating a sense of modern alienation and human disconnection. This, however, is a gross misreading of Opie’s intent. In fact, his work presents us all with a neutral and instantly recognisable evocation of the modern world, into which we are invited to feed our own psychological interpretations, thoughts and feelings. As such his minimalist aesthetic provides a powerful catalyst for a true experience of our own inner realities – an escape, if you like, from the artifice of reality we are faced with on a daily basis, and one which we can all employ to better make sense of the accelerated, advertising-saturated culture in which we are all, for better or worse, engaged.

It’s early morning in east London and Julian has not had the best of starts to his day – “The whole day has pretty much disintegrated before my eyes,” he tells me before we sit down amongst some favourites of the works he has recently acquired, including everything from traditional 16th century portraiture to ancient Chinese pornography and Studio Ghibli prints. Despite his apparently stressful morning he is affable, easy-going and eloquent about his work, which has seen him plough much the same conceptual furrow since the 90s via portraiture, figurative work, landscapes and sculpture. He has been a permanent and much respected fixture in the art world since his early gallery success in the 80s with A Pile of Old Masters – a show which saw him re-make classic artworks, and, in a sense, challenge both the overarching spectre of art history and the prevailing modernist pop aesthetic of the time. In a two-part interview, which is the first of our in-depth profiles of established artists, Dazed Digital talk to him about his career, his creative process and his artistic language…

Dazed Digital: Is there any particular point in your childhood that you can pinpoint that set you upon your path as an artist?
Julian Opie:
I remember getting an art prize around the age of 12. I carved a bar of soap into a Henry Moore – it wasn’t a joke and it wasn’t a copy, I just knew roughly what a Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth looked like. I guess it was a bit like a Richard Prince art joke – a bar of soap looking like a Henry Moore that you can wash with and watch disintegrate. But although I knew it was funny, I was serious about it. I don’t know whether they gave me the prize thinking that it was a innocent, naïve attempt to make a work, or whether they thought I was copying Henry Moore and didn’t really know it.

DD: So you were very aware of modern art from an early age?
My family were quite into 50s St Ives art and there was a lot of that imagery around Oxford where I grew up, so I knew that that’s what modern art looked like. I remember buying some paints and stretching a canvas in the basement at home when I was 10 years old and painting abstract paintings. I knew what an abstract painting looked like – it had red and blue and then a squiggle down the middle, with a blob of the red going into the blue area. I knew I wanted to make art and I didn’t feel embarrassed about that, I met someone called Simon Link later on at college and he took that idea further – that we as art students all essentially wanted to be like our heroes.

DD: When you had your first really big gallery success with A Pile of Old Masters in the 80s it almost seemed like you were challenging both the overarching spectre of art history and the prevailing modernist pop aesthetic of the time. Was that important to your development as an artist?
It just felt like art needed a new mood, the prevailing mood had become burdensome rather than inventive. When I was at college, I really admired people like Carl Andre and Bruce Nauman – the great artists of the 70s, and even the totally conceptual works of Chris Burden, but it felt like this idea that art to had to try and cut off the past had become quite restrictive. What seemed available to me as a way of shaking that up was not to shift to another style, but to simply go nuts and use any style available.

DD: Why do you think art had moved in that direction, that denial of the past?
If I think of my parents after the war – they simply didn’t want anything old. I suppose as children of the war I can understand that. Therefore it felt quite invigorating to become traditional, or to look at the traditions and bring those back into play. So at college I used to draw say, a hand, in the style of El Greco and write 'Eat Dirt El Greco’ on top of the hand and pin it up all around the college.

DD: So it was really a post-modern statement?
 Looking back I suppose you could see it as post-modern. I guess that attitude was already up and running. For my generation it just suddenly provided a very fresh vocabulary. Suddenly there were people out there like Elaine Sturtevant whose work was to copy Frank Stella’s, and she had a glistening career in New York. Then there was Julian Schnabel putting paintings on top of other paintings – all of this seemed to fit together with this idea of a voracious appetite and a world of imagery that was available. Simon Link became very successful in the 80s making very exact and beautiful oil painted copies of advertising for galleries. It was like he was painting his own ambition and it was so outrageous to be doing that, because of course we were all flicking through the magazines, looking at who was getting ahead and thinking how can we do that? But he just took the pages of adverts for other artists, and painted those pages. I thought that was great, it felt very refreshing.

DD: Is that what inspired you to begin to paint computer screens?
In the 90s the computer was providing a rapidly growing public language that was fresh and new, and kind of thrilling. I was seeing shop windows in Tottenham Court Road with all the computer screens with screensavers on them, and it was a real shock to seeing a moving, three-dimensional image that was a drawing. It simply hadn’t been possible. It was an utterly new way of looking at things and yet, it obviously came from somewhere – it reminded you of Bauhaus drawing and Russian constructivism but it was still entirely new. I started out by simply taking that language as one of many available and mixing it into what I was doing. I was actually copying computer-generated images off computer screens and computer games, and sort of mimicking them in oil paint or in acrylic paint.

DD: Then you began to use computers, was it a liberating thing to realise your ideas more accurately?
You know there is a tendency to feel that in order for something to be important that it's got to be difficult, and I tend to go the other way. My instincts are always to do what’s easiest – that’s just a rule that I follow and it means that you often end up making things that some people, and even I myself can feel a little dubious about. When people find out that I use photography as the basis for my portraits you can see that they feel a slight sense of disappointment, but frankly a photograph makes it a hell of a lot easier and we all know that the Dutch painters in the 17th century used the Camera Obscura when they could. So what I found, after a while, was that mimicking the computer look was a lot easier by simply using a computer. So I kind of taught myself vector drawing, and the way that works is via a process of cut and build, cut and build – you put pieces of rope around something, and you can make it thicker or darker, then you fill it with colour – it’s a constructive Lego-type system of drawing.

DD: What I find interesting about working from photographs is that as soon as someone has got the camera pointed at them, they’ll give you a questionable representation of themselves. It won't be accurate because they’ll feel under the microscope.
I think that a photograph is a good representation of the way that reality seems to appear, but they only go so far in terms of representing reality. They don’t represent the smell or the sound of reality, they don’t represent anything emotional particularly about the scene and they don’t represent your experience of moving around reality and taking in a certain amount of it. If you remember how it was to come up into this room, it wouldn’t be a series of photographs, it would be an amalgam of experience of sights and sounds, and smells and people that you met and your own emotional baggage that you brought into it – reality is a complex construction that is built from experience.

DD: Is that why you reduce figures and portraits, to create a catalyst for the imagination of the viewer to experience a heightened sense of reality? Because they give the work meaning don’t they? They fill in the gaps?
JO: I think I’m aware that when you make an image, a lot of what’s going on there is to do with what people bring to it. Some people often talk about my portraiture being pared-down but I don’t quite see it that way. I see it as starting from a point of view of saying, ‘I’d like to make something, I’d like to mark my presence, I’d like to communicate what it feels like to look at things.’ That’s sort of a basic urge, which I’m not sure I can really explain. If you take that as a given then I just try not to go any further than what I think I understand at any one time. So, for me, the portraits that I make are quite complicated, and over the years, I’ve managed to get to a point where I think I can include a representation of the human by borrowing from other representations of humans, all representations of humans, all the representations that make up my image of humans, which is formed from my own experience of what it feels like talking to someone on the street, looking at the sign on a lavatory door, having my own passport, being a kid at school, being on a register of names... all of those things that build your idea of what a human is.

DD: So you are delineating a universal language of reality?
Oliver Sacks famously talks a lot about people who’ve been blind all their life who have their sight restored – they can’t see anything for months because they cant make any sense of the information that’s coming in. Information isn’t enough, light falling on your retina isn’t enough, it’s the interpretation of what we see, and that interpretation is a cultural, learned thing, which we all do differently, but presumably we also share a lot. That’s where communication of language comes into sight. I think that I tend to make, not only images, but whole exhibitions with the audience in mind. I’m imagining what it’s like for people to look at these things. The objects have a subconsciousness about them, like the work from the early 80s – they knew they were artworks, they knew they were for sale. I would play around with those elements and make it obvious. Trying to find freedom and liberation by completely accepting how subconscious the artwork was, how it knew that it was it knew it was going to be looked at by other people who had all this baggage that they brought to it. I found that painting a face, in a certain sense quite blank, allows for ones visual, mental process to fill it in.

Read part two of this interview on Thursday.